Hyderabad, Ajmer blasts: why probe took wrong turn?

“Both Ajmer and Mecca Masjid had strong military imprints,” one of the investigating officers told.

The “military methods” used by attackers who bombed the Mecca Masjid in Hyderabad and Ajmer Sharif dargah in 2007 initially misled investigators in the two states as well as the Centre, causing them to suspect Islamist terror groups trained by Pakistani forces, as only they were known to have access to such capability. “Both Ajmer and Mecca Masjid had strong military imprints,” one of the investigating officers told The Indian Express. “And so far, we had come across only terrorists trained across the border or those who were trained there and came here and trained locals, using such methods. So it was assumed that one of these groups must be behind these attacks as well and the investigations moved in that direction.”

It was the unravelling of the plot behind the 2008 Malegaon bomb blast, leading to the arrest of two men with Indian Army backgrounds – serving Lt Col Shrikant Prasad Purohit and retired Major Ramesh Upadhyay – that changed the focus of the probe. Subsequent investigations, said top sources in central and investigative teams, led investigators to conclude that the same group of Hindu extremists was behind the Mecca Masjid and Ajmer Sharif blasts.

The officer admitted that before this, “We never thought they (Hindu extremist groups) had such (military) capabilities or could access them.” In fact, within days of the blast in Mecca Masjid, Hyderabad, in May 2007, police there had named Bangladesh-based terror group Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI) as the prime suspect. The terror cell was suspected to have been headed by Hyderabad-resident Abdul Mohammad Shahid alias Bilal, who was believed to be hiding in Karachi.

The Ajmer blast five months later was found to have similarities with the Hyderabad blast. SIM cards found in the one unexploded bomb each at both the targets were traced to a bunch of SIM cards bought together from eastern India. This led investigators in the two states to believe that the same HuJI cell was behind both the blasts. Then, during his interrogation, Purohit reportedly admitted that a “cell” linked to their group had executed two other blasts. Officers investigating the Ajmer and Mecca Masjid blasts now began working afresh on their evidence.

The Hyderabad bomb, for instance, included two deep, inter-threaded cast iron twin pipe shells forming the main body and was stuffed with RDX and TNT. It had a 9-volt power battery source, a circuit and a mobile phone to complete the device, which was placed in a black tin box. Investigators said it was the first time they had come across a crude bomb using twin inter-threaded cast iron pipes as shells. Islamist groups and militants in the Northeast were known to use materials easily available in the market to make bombs, they said. Moreover, the outer surface of the pipe had striations – square or box-like etched formations, like on the surface of a hand grenade. Besides, the pipes were made of cast iron of the type used by Indian ordnance factories to make grenades. “It was during our reconstruction that it struck us that this was someone with a military background. And as we made progress, we felt it was someone with exposure to the Indian military or with good knowledge of Indian armaments,” said one officer.

The combination of RDX and TNT was also being seen in India for the first time, one investigator said. While RDX traced to Pakistani and Bangladeshi groups is known to be black in colour, the Indian military is known to usually use RDX which is white, resembling a crystalline sugar substance, although black RDX is also available in India.

The explosive found in the Hyderabad bomb was brownish-yellow, which forensic experts believe was due to the mixture of TNT and white RDX. Although investigators are yet to trace the origin of this RDX or the one found in the Malegaon bomb, Indian Army officials have said that none of the RDX in their possession or the stock seized from militants is missing.

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-31 August 2010 on page no. 11

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